The Perverse Appeal of LOST
This post contains no spoilers.
The Queen and I are halfway through season three of LOST and goddamn I love this show.
It's hard for me to admit because LOST is popular, and it's crucial to my self-image that I only enjoy television shows that hobble along for a season or three, unappreciated by the unwashed masses, before getting unceremoniously axed. Freaks & Geeks, Arrested Development, Firefly, and so forth. (We are going to conveniently ignore that I also liked The Sopranos, and that I laugh until my stomach hurts every time I stumble across AFHV ...) And yet here I am, a LOST junkie, just like half of America.
Intellectually I recognize that the third season has all of the same problems of the first two: it shows us the trees, so to speak, and willfully ignores the forest. In other words, the creators of LOST have inverted the traditional mystery formula by making the clues themselves the focus of the show, instead of using them as an means to a end (the end being the solution of the central mystery).
Here's a hypothetical example (hypothetical in the sense that I just made all this up; again, no spoilers in this post.) An episode ends with someone on LOST finding a leather-bound tome entitled "Secrets of the Island." Yes! Finally we'll learn what's going on! But in the next installment, that person opens the book to discover that the whole thing is written in ancient indecipherable pictograms. Dammit! But in the last five minutes, someone notices that the final third of the book is blank, and the ink of the last entry is fresh! "It's a work-in-progress," says Major Character. "Someone is still writing it!!" And in the last five minutes of the next episode it is revealed via flashback that Other Major Character studied Ancient Indecipherable Pictology in college--holy shit!!!! And this goes on for three more episodes, at which point Major Character confronts Other Major Character with the book, and he (O.M.C.) confesses that he is using the book to record the movements of the other castaways, but only because a giant, ambulatory, sentient coconut threatened to kill him if he didn't. And you, the viewer, are, like, "well, I'm glad the mystery of the book is cleared up BUT WHAT'S THIS ABOUT A GIANT AMBULATORY SENTIENT COCONUT??!!!" Lots and lots of clues (and episodes about clues), but you're not one jot closer to understanding the central mystery. And meanwhile the LOST prop department is hastily burying the book in a Superfund site, hoping that no one remembers the title.
I found all this exasperating during season two (during which I parodied the style with The Adventure of the Missing Stocking.) But I've succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome or something, because now I kind of enjoy the sheer absurdity of it.
The structure of the narrative reminds me, in many ways, of a computer roleplaying game (CRPG). A quick primer for my seven non-nerd readers: in a CRPG (such as World of Warcraft, a.k.a. WoW), you typically start out as a puny little nothing, a 47-pound weakling armed with a broomstick. As such, you only have the wherewithal to fight monsters of a comparable degree of fragility (rats, typically). But every time you dispatch one, you gain "experience," and once you've acquired enough experience, you "level". Leveling (as it is called) means that your abilities go up, you are able to buy and use better weapons, and can now go toe-to-toe with slightly more menacing creatures--giant ambulatory sentient coconuts, say. Kill enough of those, level again, and move on to the next class of baddies.
I love CRPGs (so much so that I've avoided WoW like the plague--if I wanted a all-consuming addiction I'd pick up some heroin from a Seattle street corner, thanks). I love them despite my frequent realizations, while playing, that in-game progress is largely chimeric. When you're a level 1 squire it may take you two minutes to kill a rat; when you are a level 9 knight you can kill a rat with a single stroke--but you don't fight rats, you fight ogres, and the time it takes you to kill them is ... two minutes. You environment levels up as you do, such that you are pretty much playing the same game all the time, albeit with cool new equipment and a more impressive sounding rank. The excitement you feel upon leveling fades almost immediately, as you start accumulating experience to reach the next stage.
This is the LOST formula in a nutshell. During each show you gain a little experience in the form of new information: about the island, the characters, or both; every four episodes or so you level up, as some (allegedly) major piece of the overall puzzle falls into place. After leveling up in a CRPG, you typically head to Ye Olde Flail 'N' Scented Candle Emporium, sell all your current equipment, and buy the improved weapons that your enhanced abilities now allow you to wield; likewise, after a revelatory LOST episode, fans chuck all their old theories into the dustbin and cook up new ones consistent with the revised facts. Then, having done so, each--the player of a CRPG, or the viewer of LOST--is handed a brand new quest, or puzzle, or plot plot. The ephemeral thrill of leveling vanishes, replaced by a longing to hit the next milestone. You never disembark from the treadmill, it just goes faster.
This may sound like criticism, but it's not. It's admiration. Like the creators of World of Warcraft, the writers of LOST have managed to throw a saddle on the addictive lure of leveling and ride it to success. And bully for them. Like I said, I love this genre, even if I can visualize the levers they are pulling.
LOST is not the first program to attempt this, to be sure. Lynch tried it with Twin Peaks, but the wheels flew off the cart in the second season (and even before that, the ride was pretty bumpy). The X-Files came close to pulling it off, but it wasn't certain if the writers would ever provide resolution to the core "mythos" mysteries, and after a while fans (such as myself) gave up on the series. That's what CRPGers call an "endgame problem"--the game might be fun to play, but the whole enterprise feels pointless unless there's a clearly-defined "ending" on the horizon. (Even WoW, which you could conceivably play forever, has a maximum level that a character can reach, giving players a concrete goal toward which to strive.) The creators of LOST obviated the "endgame problem" by announcing that the series will end in 2010, and swearing that answers will be supplied. (For details, see this commendably spoiler-free USA Today article from last year.)
Another piece of lingo that crops up a lot in CRPG circles is "grinding": when your character has to do the same thing over and over again (killing rats, for instance) to acquire the experience necessary to level. If the CRPG isn't intrinsically interesting, then grinding is just that: a grind. But if the world is well-constructed, and the game is well-written, grinding is tolerated (and even enjoyed) by players as a necessary evil, something to keep you immersed in the storyline as long as possible. After all, a game in which you started at level 70 and killed the End Boss in your first fight would be lame beyond belief.
Much of LOST is grinding, honestly: stuff to keep the viewer occupied until the next bombshell drops and the story is taken the next level (so to speak). But here, halfway through season three, it's becoming increasingly obvious (at least to me) that the grinding itself is pretty fun. That's high-praise right there: these guys can even stall entertainingly.
Yes some of the episodes are clunkers, and lot of the plot twists don't endure a moment's scrutiny, and I STILL REMEMBER THE TITLE OF THE BOOK YOU GODDAMNED CHEATS!! But the game's been a lot of fun so far, and I'll gladly play through to the end.
Posted on April 08, 2008 to TV On DVD
As a fellow LOST enthusiast I would completely agree with everything mentioned above. The story and intriguing plot twists are ultimately what make the show so entertaining. I was curious as to yors or other peoples views about the flash back sequences and whether they were necessary or not. Personally I find them to detract from the more interesting island plots but thats just me.
I agree about the frustratingly endless mystery that is Lost. I want it to fucking end already! However, in your review I think you missed a really crucial part of the show that makes it enjoyable...
It's not just a matter of solving puzzles and being broadsided by plot twists... the show has a number of genuinely interesting characters, and exploring their depths (achieved through admirably well done character studies) is a large part of why the show as successful as it is. Sure, you find out about the island, and why it is the way it is... but, just as important is finding out more about your favorite characters and what makes them tick.
One of the central themes of the show is that there could be an interesting mystery lurking behind something that is, at first glance, apparently ordinary. And that goes for Lost's characters as well as its setting and plot.
Oh, great. Now I either have to get hooked on WoW or Lost, thanks to this insightful and cogent analysis. Yeah, thanks. Thanks a bunch.
spoiler free post
as you reach the end of season 3 you will notice a shift in the story telling...for the better.
You can tell that there is a lot of "stalling episodes" in the begining of season 3 because they had no idea when it would end. Once they got towards the end of the third season though they finally set the end date of 2010. At this point theere is no more stalling, and they know they have 48 hours to finish everything.
Just wait till you get to season 4, it's pretty much non-stop "action" and revelations.
Also, once you catch up on the season (April 24th is when it comes back on the air), you should start to read Dark UFO (I made it my URL).
Probably the best site I've found for information. You will not believe how much information you are missing, and how much small, subtle things are happening in the background.
Well, we knew that LOST was just like ALIAS since both were created by JJ Abrams. Of course, Alias got tiring with leading-the-audience-on and never really lived up to it's promise which was the epic grandiose wonderment of rombaldi's puzzle (aka nostradamus meets leonardo di vinci). It was like, um we are running out of ideas, but someone just hit the wrap-it-up button so...ok fine the solution to the puzzle is it's the immortality potion. there are you happy.
I fear LOST is going to suffer the same fate: once the wrap it up button is collectively hit (around season 5 or 6), the conclusion will a simple, unfulfilling, and possibly banal one. E.g. the island was built orignally by soviets as their answer to norad; protection from nuclear weapons. The end. Boring. No Nazi alchemists, no illuminati, no comet people from the 13th dimension, no atlanteans, no pre-destination time paradox, no us-from-the-future.
I was just thinking the other day that people who like Lost really should watch the new episodes of Doctor Who. It doesn't portray itself as nearly as mysterious as Lost does so you don't put on the conspiracy goggles, but it does offer far more gratification in its season finales. And upon repeated viewing of the prior episodes in the season you start to wish you had worn the conspiracy goggles.
I'm trying to be as vague as possible so as not to give anything anyway in case you haven't seen the show.
It's a fun show, definitely worth checking out if you haven't yet.
Lost lost me after its second season. I was lucky enough to see the premiere on the beach in Hawaii and it knocked my socks off. They showed the first two shows without any commercials, the entire cast was there, and I thought the show was little short of awesome. It was interesting because the turnout for the Lost premiere wasn't all that well attended and the show ultimately turned out to be a hit. The following night, the detective show Hawaii premiered, it was standing room only, and that show cancelled after eight episodes. For me, Lost just got too convoluted and the never-ending bizarre twists and turns started losing me. It got to a point where Lost really became an anything-goes fantasy world and quite a different storyline from what started out as an incredibly intriguing first season. In a world when anything is possible, it is easy to get lost quite easily.
No spoilers, but just to say that the last episode of season three is one of the best revelations/twists/cliffhangers I've seen.
I've been avoiding Lost for a number of reasons, but maybe I'll rent the DVDs after it's all over and enjoy it without the frustration. But that might take some of the fun out of it too, I imagine.
Anyway, just wanted to say that I'm so glad you're back. Defective Yeti makes my day. :)
I was in love with Lost when it first came out and not much was expected of it. Then it became a hit and the suits at ABC started fucking with it. And I read an interview with the producer (sorry, don't remember his name) in which he basically said, "We're gonna string this thing out forever and nothing will ever be resolved." The suits started chopping the show up with commercials every 2 minutes (especially in the last half of the show), then they would run the show for a week or two and then show reruns for 4 or 5 weeks and increasingly dumb stuff started happening on the show. The whole thing began to feel contrived and manipulative and they pissed me off and I haven't watched it since season 2.
But I'd still like to do Kate.
I watch lost, but I don't particularly like doing so.
The problem is that there is no payoff for the viewer. What happened to the polar bear? Or the black cloud monster? Or... or... argh!
And if there is some semblance of a reveal, it's just another fucking mystery that won't be explained.
It's all a house of cards and... it's exhausting!
Who cares about trying to figure out the solution, a better and more interesting task would be to catalog all of the unexplained.
Here's JJ's talk at TED where he talks about his Mystery Box.
He has never opened it because the mystery of what is inside is more interesting than actually opening it.
It sure explains a LOT about the frustration of Lost.
Still watching Lost (started last year with a catch-up marathon of DVDs) and still appreciating the plot. The problem for me is that I no longer feel much for any of the characters. Those I once found handsome and heroic now seem like whiny bitches (and have an annoying inability to keep their eyes from doing crazy jigs on close ups). Those I once found dangerously enticing and surprisingly sly and amusing are now, also, whiny bitches. The sexual tension between characters is gone, too. And geesh, if I wanted to see unwashed white trash have sex in public, I'd just watch more COPS.
And also, if that Walter kid doesn't learn how not to flare his nostrils when he talks, he will never get another good role.
And also, I'll totally be watching the next new episode when it airs, and probably through to the last one in 2010.
so what is the 'secret book' a metaphor for?
I have to agree with most of your analysis. I'm Lost's bitch and will watch until the end even as I become more and more disillusioned with it. Although if Sayid gets killed my main eye candy will be gone and maybe I'll be to turn off the TV.
I try to stay away from any message boards about it anymore b/c I don't want to read anyone's theories about Lost which make me feel like fans spend about 99% more time thinking about the theories behind Lost and where it will go than the actual writers of Lost do. I have never felt there was actually plan for everything or even half of everything by the writers and that's at least 70% of the problems with Lost. I have to agree with Bug about characters and MR.
My favorite part of the Lost experience is the online community it created. You don't need to be active in online forums to enjoy the show, but doing so adds another layer. I have found a great community that isn't the most popular, and tends to have more eduacted contributors. Check out Sledgeweb if you're interested. They even come up with challenging games when the show is on a break.
Your description and the comments above explain in a very large nutshell why I gave up on Lost - it wasn't enjoyable to watch anymore. It was a grind - I'm curious how it all ends, but I'm not going to waste my time for the next four years (or whatever) watching it play out.
Check out 24, it has a very similar style. At least it sounds similar, but I've never watched Lost, so I can't really compare the two.
I think you summed up everything I've ever felt about "Lost," and your book analogy is pretty spot-on. Also your video game on. I've not played too many RPGs, but I've always thought "Lost" felt like one. Sometimes, when I wonder where the characters are on the island, I glance in the upper right-hand corner of the screen expecting to see one of those maps that fill out as you explore the world in video games.
I watched seasons one and two on DVD and have watched three and four in real time. I understand all the gripes with programming and slowness and teasing with solving a mystery only to create 8,000 in its place. But at the same time... I love the ride. There have been 2 episodes in season four alone that made me cry, one of which made me actually sob, and the fact that a goofy genre TV show can do that to me says a lot about the storytelling. (Of course, that sobbing episode quite blatantly fucked with my head ON PURPROSE THOSE BASTARDS, which is apparent after the episode is over. The storytelling style of that episode didn't HAVE to be that way, yet it did. Sorry to be so cryptic. You'll see what I mean.)
Anyway. Yes, I agree with everything you've said. I love "Lost," even though sometimes I feel like I'm in an abusive relationship with it. I'll be here till the end.
I have to say, I'm hooked on Lost more for the character development than the puzzles - although I am intrigued by how the relationships between the characters are constantly being revealed as essential pieces OF the puzzle!
Anyway, once you catch up to season 4, you'll be able to send these postcards out over the summer:
What a great comparison. As someone who has spent endless dollars and hours "lost" in WoW, and has thoroughly enjoyed Lost, I can totally see it.
For me though, Lost is more like the game Myst. I never could figure those stupid puzzles out. And I sit in front of the television night after night trying to figure out what's going to happen in Lost and never get anywhere either.
I didn't realize how slowly paced previous seasons were until season 4 started. Answers do come (wrapped in more questions), but you can tell that it's actually going somewhere now. Season 4 has been fantastic.
Also, the rpg analogy is great, and reminded me that in the bonus features on season one, Damon Lindelof even compared it to an RPG himself -- "you might find a door (the hatch), but it might be a few levels before you have the tools to open it."
You guys won't get answers if you don't know you're supposed to be looking for them.
Exposition via dialogue is NOT something Lost does. Get off your entertained fannies and stop saying Lost has no 'payoff' just because you aren't used to the way its story is told.
You need to pay attention and realize that most funky things that happen are, in fact, not funky at all. These things make a lot more sense if you're willing to remember things that have happened in previous evpisodes and, more importantly, realize the significance.
But oh well. Lost doesn't make sense, right? It's a grind that has no payoff.
as a lost non-fan, i really enjoyed this post.
glad you're back, matthew!
we missed your posts!
That theory is pretty far from what's actually going on in the show.
Aka, it's wrong.
Interesting read if Lost happened to be a science project of some sort, though.
Otherwise, it's just another useless theory that satisfies people who don't know how to watch Lost and, instead, treat it like a lab project.
Doesn't this all have to do with Billy Drago and The Orb?
"After all, a game in which you started at level 70 and killed the End Boss in your first fight would be lame beyond belief."
Not at all! That game is called You Have to Burn the Rope and it makes you feel like a hero.
lost is definitely an rpg. well, at least the board game is:
and it's about the worst board game i've ever tried to play.
This is a great write up of exactly what Lost is all about. Thanks!
You guys need to look at http://lostisagame.com/
the guy who runs the site has a big long theory on the fact that it is a game and how it works.
You guys need to look at http://lostisagame.com/
the guy who runs the site has a big long theory on the fact that it is a game and how it works.
You guys are just ridiculous. You make fun of an intellectually entertaining show that requires memory and critical thinking to understand what's happening, yet you provide links to downright nonsensical and illiterate theories and arguments.
wow. so very very true.
though i must say even if the final reveal sucks, and all of it ends up being some guy's dream, i still feel like i had a great time with these characters.
This exact entry is the perfect example of why defective yeti is the best blog in the entire known unisphere. You win at everything.
But you like it! That's the main part. People do enjoy the flow of the show and do enjoy that the secrets open and new ones come up.
When they reveal dead people still being alive on the island in some form, I bet that you fellas are going to say "Oh my god, that's a totally new mystery!"
Meanwhile, it's been 4 seasons old.
Ehh. All it is, if we have to do with this game analogy, a game alright, but it's not the viewer who's the player, it's the writers, and they probably enjoy it like hell :) I mean come on, it's the dream series, whetever crazyness you write all the viewers start polls and contests about who thinks this latest one has been the real mindblowingly best tv experience they had :) It's fun to see it happen, but that's all.
Have blogged on my scriptwriting blog.
Very nice post..very interesting.
this is a real stretch. I could say LOST is like a walk in the park, you know, every step you get further into the park, but at the same time you are walking towards another exit in the park.
Forget CRPGs -- Lost, more than anything else, feels like the computer game MYST (or Riven, or any of the series) done for television. In each, there are vague devices and puzzle that you have to figure out. While each puzzle seems totally inexplicable, each one tends to build on the next, and by the time you've done a few of them, things about the 'systems' in the game begin to make sense. MYST, like Lost, has an overarching mythos that slowly reveals itself as puzzles are solved.
The parallels continue from there. MYST (and Riven, and etc, etc.) take place on an island (or islands). There are creepy rooms built into rocky hills and mountains. There is vaguely 1960's level technology available. Both involve people who built something then left the island.
CRPGs are the wrong metaphor entirely. Computer adventure games (MYST or otherwise) would be the correct one.
You got some serious holes in the WoW part of it, but otherwise I agree.
The level cap (70 currently) is where the game begins, the leveling part of it is more the preliminary part of the game.
I disagree with those suggesting Season 4 picks up the pace. After the first two episodes the story grinds to a halt. The writers can apparently only advance one aspect of the show, and this season they're focusing on the flashbacks; the current, island story has been dead for weeks.
Having a definite endpoint hasn't done anything to stop the "grinding;" it's only shifted the focus from character development to making sure they hit specific plot points at the appropriate time. The characters are now nothing more than Plot Delivery Devices(tm).
Of course, I continue to watch religiously.
I firmly believe that LOST is actually a game and give detailed explanations of how it all works on my website.
My website http://www.LOSTisaGame.com has been in existence for over two years. The theory behind it all began as a thread I maintained on one of the ABC forums beginning in October 2005.
In addition, based on my theory, I have consistently been able to predict the exact days when certain events will occur.
I have also been able to predict the deaths of certain characters, months before they occured.
My site is frequented by fans from over 110 countries around the world. I suggest you join the tens of thousands of fans who visit the site each day. http://www.LOSTisaGame.com
Lostisagame.com has been around since nearly the beginning of the show and has had a strong following re: the Lost is a Game theory...FYI. Many of these bits of info have appeared there for years; very in-depth site.
THE GAME THEORY has been around for about three years and the Website (LOSTisaGame.Com) that heavily supports the theory has been around for over two years.
Lets not take credit where credit isn't do.
If you want to highlight the GAME THEORY of Lost, then congratulate the effort, time and intelligence of the authors of LOSTisaGame.Com.
The credit is right there, others are just bad copies (with a delay of three years!)
Check out www.lostisagame.com to find out exactly why Lost is really a game! The website's been around for years and I am totally hooked on the theory. I recommend reading the "Playing" section first.
"Your argument that LOST is a game is (wrong | flawed | old news)" = "HAI GUYZ I DID NOT READ THE POST ON WHICH I AM COMMENTING!!!"
It's called an MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role playing game), not a CRPG. You can even shorten it to MMO.
you, sir, have inspired me to make a t-shirt!
Giant Ambulatory Sentient Coconut
choosing an appropriate graphic seems difficult, although i suppose we could just stick in the Flying Spagetti Monster and just freak people the hell out.
[i think you've got the google results pinned with that phrase, btw]
I started out watching it. Got bored fairly quickly. Polar bears and black clouds and random weird things that didn't point to anything and no one ever referenced again.
But I've started watching once more. And now I slap my knee and say, "that was HAWESOME!" after just about every amazing plot twist/development/clue. I'm not really sure how or if it has changed (it's not you, it's me, maybe?!) but I'm really having a good time.
And I am also suitably embarrassed by my enjoyment of it.
I'd agree lost is entertaining, it's pretty much an addiction that most of its watchers have. But I disagree about the grind, LOST's grind is getting really bad. It's become so predictable, and basically it relates to them walking to x location to stop ben/locke/others/hostiles from doing x - and then going back to where they started, then finding out that ben/locke/others/hostiles are at it again, and travelling back to x to rescue whoever.
In the meanwhile, Sawyer Jack and Kate engage in a triangle romance,and Sayid's amazing ability to fix just about anything comes in use - also Sayid warns Jack about what's about to happen.
Hurley goes on an adventure, and tries to chat everyone up, while Sun and Jin continue to have outlandish marital problems. Mike continues along yelling "Waallter", and Desmond cries out for Penelope.
Have I forgotten anyone?
(ignoring the several tedious persons who were, apparently, terribly excited to find what they seem to imagine is yet another Lost fansite, suitable for endless wrangling)
Your description of Lost suggests nothing so much to me as a re-invention (perhaps unintentional) of pulp fiction. Ongoing mystery/mysteries, clues that spawn more questions, surprise backstory, unnatural occurences (see also polar bear), heavy atmosphere, exotic location and a structure adapted to supporting an ongoing short-format series in a disposable medium . . . whether they meant to or not, the writers of Lost have recreated a classic writing style. Of course, pulp fiction is also famously uneven, producing both utter drek and surprise masterpieces like Chandler/Marlowe. That seems to fit, too.
My apologies for the multiple commenting. For whatever reason, there was no indication that ANY of the posts were succesful.
I therefore conclude that a malevolent Force--perhaps, indeed, one of these wicked Cocoa-Nuts of which we hear so much--has infested my computer.
I'd love to hear what you think of LOST after you finish watching the final episode of season 3...
all those lost fans will be even more dissapointed when they find out LOST is a new ride at a WALT disney them park and the series is just a marketing tool!
Yo, people, he's not saying that the major plot twist of Lost is that it is a game, he's saying that it is STRUCTURED like a game. Reading comprehension is a dying art.
I watched the first few episodes of Season 1 and realized that Lost could become an obsession for me, but unlike Myst, to which I (successfully) dedicated Christmas break of my first year of grad school, I didn't have control over the time investment and stepped away. Like you, I think drug addiction would be easier on my family than getting involved in a more endless game, or an ongoing TV series.
That's silly. Lost isn't an endless tv show. If you think it's an endless grind of brain candy and flashy faux mysteries, then it's entirely your fault.
I don't go around saying such things about stories that I don't understand.
this is exactly why i have refused to watch the show. it feels like dropping quarters in a slot machine. i know i will be addicted and do not want my life to revolve around it.
I just finished season 3 and enjoyed it a lot. Much more than season 2. I like the show a lot and agree with your central premise about it being a show about the clues more than the mystery. I will disagree with your statement that each show causes viewers to ditch their old theories and come up with new ones based on what they learned. I've had the same theory since about midway through season 1. They're dead. They're in purgatory. Once someone has been purified of their sins they "die" and move on.
Really at this point the show has reinforced this so much that if they end up resolving it some other way, it will come across as a last minute rewrite in order to have a neat "twist" ending.
The problem with Lost is we never figure anything out. For example, I don't know why this episode we just watched that they just don't pin up the foreigners and ask what their mission is on the island hostly.